John Waters’ seventh book, Mr. Know-It-All, – a funhouse mirror image of the traditional self-help manual – opens with a quandary. ‘The worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me,’ he writes. ‘I am accepted.’
It’s the biggest imaginable shock for a man who’s made a career out of his ability to subvert and scandalise. The Baltimore-born director’s catalogue of video nasties from 1964 to 2004 were like a grenade attack on cinematic propriety. He made 300lb drag queen Divine his bodacious Marilyn, introduced the world to the heathen pleasures of a ‘rosary job’ (google it) and developed scratch ’n’ sniffs for cinema audiences imbued with the unholy scents of flatulence and dirty shoes. Back when Waters made the filmed-on-a-shoestring trash classic Pink Flamingos in 1972, even the most outlandish clairvoyant couldn’t have foreseen that, 25 years later, the snooty cinephiles of Cannes Film Festival would be toasting the murderous shit-eating trailer-park queen at the film’s centre.
John Waters’ style drew freely from high and low culture – gross-out gore flicks as well as daring avant-garde works — and treated his regular collaborators like Divine and Edith Massey like the A-listers they deserved to be. Before long, actual Hollywood stars like Kathleen Turner and Melanie Griffith were clamouring to be part of Waters’ self-described ‘filth empire’. In the past couple of decades, though, Waters has re-envisioned himself as a kind of alternative public intellectual, Fran Lebowitz with dirtier jokes. His extensive speaking tours and meet-and-greets are a riot (he will sign anything, including a tampon). And he has infiltrated the art establishment with a welcome dose of irreverence: his 2009 installation ‘Rush’ was a gargantuan spilt bottle of amyl nitrate. In Waters’ warped world, even poppers can be high art.
On a perfect July afternoon, Waters telephones from the bohemian gay resort town of Provincetown, Massachussets. In fact, he used to throw a poppers party at the town’s annual film festival. ‘I’ve seen movie stars and A-list critics all doing poppers!’ he says. Sadly, the event was a victim of its own success. ‘Then The Boston Globe wrote about it and then the entire town crashed the party.’ Yet Waters, at 73, remains a mind-expanding heady high.
GQ: In Mr. Know-It-All, you speak movingly about Divine’s impact on pop culture. What’s your take on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
John Waters: I’m really happy for Ru. I’ve known him forever, since he started. He’s been a hard-working person for decades. He’s successfully crossed-over drag to middle America, which I never, ever thought would happen, and given careers to [so many]. Even if you come in sixth on that show, you tour eight clubs in America. Not only was he smart about it; I think another key thing is he is one of the only drag queens who has a great look out of drag. Ru is so chic. His suits are amazing. Divine was just getting there when he died, but in the beginning, he just used to walk round in overalls. In Provincetown, where I live, where there’s 5,000 drag shows, the drag queens always think I’m snobby. I don’t know what they look like out of drag – they look completely different! I can’t recognise them – and Divine, I wouldn’t have recognised him out of drag really. I think Divine has a little something to do with it, because Divine put an edge on drag queens. When I was young, they were square. It was like they wanted to be the Queen. They didn’t want to have an edge. Now, they all have an edge! I’m kind of more interested in drag kings because they are really confusing to me. I think RuPaul should have a drag king version, and I also think he should have Fag Hag Race.
And who would you put as the judge on Fag Hag Race?
Well, I don’t know, I’m trying to think – who is the ultimate fag hag? That’s a good one. I mean, they have Bear Week in Provincetown and I’m always just astounded that there are bear fag hags. They look kind of like Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place. They wear lumber jackets with greasy ponytails. So I’m for the niche fag hags.
In your book Role Models, you talked about your obsession with Rei Kawakubo and her clothes. How big is your Comme des Garçons collection now?
Well, it’s pretty big. Comme des Garçons never goes out of style because it’s never in style. So you never can go wrong. But I’m also a big fan of Walter Van Beirendonck. I buy at MAC, which is my favourite clothing store in America, in San Francisco. It’s one of a few places that really do carry him. I like Issey Miyake a lot. Paul Smith I like, when I’m trying to look normal.
Do you have any outrageous Walter Van Beirendonck pieces?
Well, some of them are too outrageous for me, I am 73! I think the ones that make me laugh the most – they aren’t Walter Van Beirendonck. One was, I can’t even remember which [designer] it was, but it’s a suit that looks like it has cat hair all over it. People say ‘Oh my god, John!’, and they try to brush it off. It’s quite intricate, the threads. And I have another one that looks like water splashed up on your pants. As I said in my book, my look is ‘disaster at the dry cleaners’.
What do you think is the new cinematic underground – is it online?
I don’t think it is. In the music industry, everybody makes a name online and on YouTube. [But] what movie has premiered on YouTube or online and become a sensation? I can’t think of one. Well, Roma was a Netflix movie and it was all over the Oscars last year. I’m not against that. I’m for anybody that can say yes to make a movie! You know, movies survived it all: they survived television, they survived videos and now they have to survive Netflix. If it’s good enough, people go. I saw Quentin Tarantino’s movie this weekend, and it’s so great to see a movie that really surprises you and has that much style. Those kind of movies will always come out and win, they just have to be good and they have to be original. [Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood] is the only movie that came out this summer that wasn’t a sequel or a prequel or something.
It’s true. My favourite line from one of your movies, is Edith Massey in Female Trouble where she says, ‘the world of a heterosexual is a sick and boring life’...
But she doesn’t even say it right because she didn’t know what it meant! She says ‘the world of heterosexual’, she doesn’t say ‘the world of a heterosexual’. It was really a market-testing experiment at the time, because all gay people then applauded, so I could tell the breakdown of my audience.
What kind of politics was that sentiment powered by?
It was just trying to cause trouble. That was filmed in 1973, so, at the time, gay rights were just beginning to start. It was kind of a ludicrous version of that, to have a mother that wanted you to be gay and was really sad and disappointed that you were straight.
How was Edith Massey to direct?
Well, she tried really hard. She would memorise the lines like she was writing sentences in school. She’d write them over and over but we’d get there and she’d say [in Pink Flamingos] ‘Eggs, eggs!’ Then she’d say ‘Edith shakes the playpen’. I said ‘No, you don’t say that out loud! That’s a direction.’ The audiences really loved her right from the beginning when she had a tiny role in Multiple Maniacs. When Andy Warhol met her, he said: ‘Where did you find her?’ She was like an outsider Gracie Allen [eccentric 1930s actress].
There’s one picture that’s been circulated recently, of Divine sneering at Donald Trump at Studio 54. Were you there?
That’s completely fake! Because I know where that picture of Divine is from and he was not with Donald Trump. It could have been true because Donald Trump liked Studio 54, and so did Divine. But we would have always hated him, even though Trump was basically a liberal back then. He was nouveau riche and a bragger. You know how he decorated the White House? It looks like Jeff Koons did it without art history knowledge or intelligence.
Did you see the White House’s horrible Christmas decorations?
They were goth! They were goth Las Vegas! Which could be funny if you were in on it, but [Melania] wasn’t in on it. She thought it was beautiful. Tastes can change, but I don’t think anybody will ever think that the Trump decorations in the White House were influential or interesting. They were just bad in a way that was just surreal.
Do you think that Trump will get a second term as president?
I most certainly do. I don’t think that we have one of [the Democratic candidates] that’s strong enough to beat him.
Do you think America could be ready for a gay president with Pete Buttigieg?
Well, I like him. I would be for him, but I don’t think he can win when the only thing on the first debate he got credit for was saying ‘I couldn’t get it done’ [relating to police reform]. That’s not exactly a bumper sticker.
You worked with Selma Blair on A Dirty Shame – she’s been amazing, speaking out about her MS condition. Are you still in touch with her?
I am. I think she’s doing a great job. I had written to her and I just heard back from her. I show a movie every year at the Maryland Film Festival and the Provincetown Film Festival – just because I love it – and I showed this pretty obscure movie she made with Nicolas Cage called Mom and Dad. It’s about where every parent in America decides to kill their own children. She’s great in it.
What were her giant boobs in A Dirty Shame made from?
They were latex – made by the same guy who made Chucky and made John Travolta’s fat suit in Hairspray. You had to put them on every day. Full naked was $5,000 a day, cleavage was, I forget, $2,000? And regular under-the-sweater was $1,000. At the end of the day, they just were used breasts that were shrivelled up. But one day they were missing! Somebody took them and we always thought it was a pervert.
You’ve written many books at this point. Could you ever see yourself being a journalist?
Oh, I have been a journalist, certainly in [essay collection] Crackpot. I would love to cover a big trial.
If you were to profile a public figure, who would you like to interview?
The one I’d like to get the most – because nobody can get her – is the defence lawyer Judy Clarke who only handles death penalty cases. She wins, and she gets you life, not death. She’s done some of the biggest ones, and the only one she lost was the Boston Bomber. She’s never given an interview and she’s never allowed her clients to talk to the press. So for me, she would be the ultimate get.
In Mr. Know-It-All, you describe Polyester as a whole new level of movie-making for you. Was that the first film where you paid the cast a wage?
No, I paid everybody, even on Pink Flamingos. It wasn’t much – and it took years to pay back the money from people that I borrowed it from. I don’t think I got a salary before Polyester.
And it’s shocking to read that Hairspray didn’t make money until very recently.
No. I got the first cheque for profit like maybe two or three years ago. You know, I think it cost $8 million to make. What happened was, it was doing really well, but then Divine died. That puts a dampener on a comedy. But of course, Hairspray went on to have 20 more lives. I just wish Divine had had the 20 lives with it.
I’ve seen some amazing fan tattoos in tribute to your films. Do you have a favourite?
I have seen amazing ones – the characters from my movies. Still, my favourite one was that someone had a page of the script of Female Trouble on their leg. That’s amazing. Which scene was it? I can’t remember, probably the cha-cha heels scene.
I see people posting that scene every Christmas.
I know, but drag queens still get it wrong. Cha-cha heels aren’t high heels! They’re short, squashed heels – to this day, most drag queens get it wrong.
Famously, Divine inspired the character of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Now Disney is remaking it, who do you think should play the role?
Maybe Beth Ditto. But isn’t Melissa McCarthy playing it? She was amazing when she dressed as Divine in People magazine.
There’s been a wave of cult gay heroes leaning right-wing recently, like Morrissey and Bret Easton Ellis. What do you make of that?
Well, Tab Hunter voted for Trump. And I actually thought Bret Easton Ellis’s book [White] was good. I don’t agree with him, but I thought it was intelligently written. You know, I have friends that are Republicans. I don’t agree with them, but as soon as we make other people feel stupid, we’ll never get them to change their minds.
So is your point of view that we need to find something to break bread over?
Or at least, openly talk, because they’re not going to change their minds if we act like they’re stupid. You know, the insane political correctness – even though it’s mostly correct – is gonna make Trump win. It’s a class issue. I promise you, in the neighbourhoods in Baltimore that are really struggling with poverty, they’re not worrying about pronoun usage. I’m not saying that some don’t! But it’s rich kids’ schools who are the most stringent police of it. I never understood what a trigger warning was, I thought you went to college to have your values challenged. I thought that was the point of education.
Is there a split between John Waters, the public personality, and the guy you are behind closed doors?
No. I think I’m exactly like probably what you’d expect. In the early days, I would go to colleges and they thought I was completely [like my films]. They had drugs for me and they thought I lived in a trailer with shit-eating drag queens!
In Mr. Know-It-All, you mention that you’re in a relationship. Is it important for you to be private about the personal side of your life?
It is, mainly because my boyfriend has no desire to be in the press. My boyfriends have never been like me. I like somebody very different from me. I like him to be interested in things I’m not interested in sometimes. I don’t want to fuck myself!
Which of your movies do you think is the most underrated?
Cecil B. Demented. It didn’t do great and it’s not the first one people pick, but it had funny lines in it! My favourite is when Fidget says to Melanie Griffith when they’re at the drive-in: ‘We’re beyond the critics’ reach.’
Do you share Kathleen Turner’s horror – in Serial Mom – when it comes to white shoes after Labour Day?
Oh yes, I believe in that. Not just shoes, you can’t wear white anything – except winter white, which is wool. I’m a firm believer in that, I pack it all away and then I see people [wearing white] and think ‘your parents didn’t tell you?’. It’s the only thing I’m right-wing on.
This interview originally appeared in GQ Style AW19.